30 Must-See Places Around the U.S. to Take Your Kids Before They Fly the Coop
Kids grow up in a blink, so there’s no time like the present to visit these bucket list destinations around the country and experience adventures they’ll remember forever.
Why visit: The seat of the US government is a perfect place to start exploring American with your family.
What to do: Be awed by the towering Lincoln and Washington Memorials. Stop in any Smithsonian Institution that catches your kid’s fancy, from American History to Space Exploration to Native American to African American to Art—they’re all free. Plan ahead and you’ll be able to visit the White House and Congress too. Round out a visit with a trip to the stellar zoo and then up to Adam’s Morgan neighborhood to sample a cornucopia of international cuisines.
Why visit: Walk in the footsteps of our founding fathers.
What to do: Head to Independence National Historic Park, called “America’s Most Historic Square Mile,” to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, along with the Betsy Ross House, Benjamin Franklin Museum, and National Constitution Center. Older kids will love the walk-through heart at Franklin Science Institute, younger kids the hands-on Please Touch Museum. Everyone will want to try the frozen treats at Franklin Fountain, a vintage-style ice cream parlor.
New York City
Why visit: Be awed by the bustle and bright lights of The Big Apple.
What to do: Watch Times Square glow with neon lights and pick up tickets to watch a real Broadway show at the TKTS booth, ride to the top of the Empire State Building, and see the dinosaurs at The Museum of Natural History. Be sure to leave time for people-watching in Central Park. Other highlights include the moving tribute to the fallen towers at the World Trade Center Memorial, the full-size planes kept on a real warship at The Intrepid, and eating your way around the world in foods halls such as Chelsea Market and in neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little Italy. New York City is also perfect travel destination for even the most jaded teen traveler.
Niagara Falls, New York
Why visit: Straddling both the U.S. and Canada, these rushing waters at the oldest state park in the country are sure to give families a rush.
What to do: Take the Maid of the Mist boat to feel the spray on your face from one of the world’s most incredible waterfalls, and then don raincoats to explore under the falls in the Cave of the Winds where you’ll really witness the pounding waters up close.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Why visit: Spectacular ocean scenery along Maine’s coast.
What to do: Head to the northeast for serious hiking and miles of family-friendly biking on the preserved carriage roads at this New England national park. Stay in Bar Harbor for great ice cream, whale watching, kayaking with sea lions, and “lob-stah” pulled right from the chilly Atlantic Ocean.
Why visit: To follow the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
What to do: Follow the red brick road to make history come alive for families along the Freedom Trail that runs through the historic city. Follow Paul Revere’s famous route, see where the Boston Tea Party took place, and visit the big ships in the harbor. Then take a stroll through the grassy Boston Commons and rent a scenic swan boat. Stop at Harvard yard for some inspirational moments in the ivy or take in a baseball game at Fenway Park for some spirited fan antics. To spend the night in history, book at room at the Langham Boston, which started its life in 1865 as the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Find out 12 ways to take the stress out of flying.
Why visit: Get a kick in your step at the home of country music.
What to do: Start your Music City visit with a stop at the Ryman Auditorium to explore the origins of the music form and even step on the stage where The Grand Old Opry started (then head to its new home for a fabulous all-ages show). A highlight of the Country Music Hall of Fame is the Taylor Swift Education Center where kids can learn to strum a ukulele or create a take-home art project. Be sure to indulge in some meat-and-three or Nashville Fried Chicken spots, and take in some of the live music at the surprisingly family-friendly Honky Tonks (during the day that is) up and down Broadway. Stay at kid-pleasing Kimpton Aertson hotel which has pool that spans the entire rooftop.
Orlando and the Space Coast, Florida
Why visit: Make your family smile at The Happiest Place on Earth.
What to do: Walt Disney World is the most visited theme park in the world for a reason, and riding Space Mountain and meeting Mickey are great family bonding moments. Harry Potter fans will want to make a beeline to Universal Orlando too. Round out the fun with an educational (but still entertaining) side trip to the Space Coast and Kennedy Space Center to see rockets, meet an astronaut, and learn about the grand adventures in space. Here’s how to save money on a Disney vacation.
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia
Rui Serra Maia/Shutterstock
Why visit: Immerse yourself in Colonial history.
What to do: At this living history museum, the kids can help churn butter, practice farming, discover how kids entertained themselves in the 18th century (before handheld electronics), and learn just how much work it was to live in Colonial times. After they’ve soaked up the history lessons, bring them back to modern fun at Busch Gardens amusement park.
Why Visit: Step into Civil Rights history in the place called “The City Too Busy to Hate.”
What to do: In the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site you can visit Ebenezer Baptist Church, where both Dr. King and his father preached, the peaceful preacher’s home, and other neighborhood landmarks, on a self-guided tour. Be sure to stop in at downtown’s Center for Civil and Human Rights to explain to your kids about preserving human dignity for all people, before heading to adjoining kids-favorites such as the Atlanta Aquarium (the largest in the country) and the World of Coca Cola.
Why visit: There’s big western fun, and history, to be had in Mile High City.
What to do: Find out how the west was won at the interactive and fabulously informative History Colorado Museum, watch coins roll off the presses at the U.S. Mint, and catch a Denver Broncos football game or Rockies baseball game with views of the soaring Rocky Mountains from mile-high stadiums. Also here, great hiking and super cool concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheater. Stay in the city’s historic Brown Palace, which just celebrated its 125th Anniversary, and has hosted everyone from the Beatles to Queen Elizabeth. Find out about 10 travel tips that are no longer true.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Why visit: For outdoor adventures at the top of the Continental Divide.
What to do: Soaring mountains rising up over 12,000 feet, stunning scenery, free roaming wildlife, and endless opportunities for adventures are all family draws at this national park. Base yourself in Estes Park, called the Gateway to the Rockies; here you can launch yourself on activities such as driving down the harrowing pin curves Trail Ridge Road, the highest paved road in the country (daring families can bike down, too), horseback riding, and fly-fishing. Stay at the YMCA of the Rockies, 850 acres nestled against the park, offering cabins, lodges, stables, and guided family nature hikes.
Grand Canyon National Park
Why visit: To be dazzled by the 277 miles of deep canyons.
What to do: Although you can view the immense depths from viewing points on the North and South rims, to full appreciate the enormity of the natural wonder, consider hiking or taking a mule ride down to Phantom Ranch, or rafting down the Colorado River for sky-staggering views. Or let someone else do the driving, or flying, by taking the Grand Canyon Railway (one of the most scenic train rides in America) or a helicopter tour for totally new views of one the earth’s oldest wonders. Then explore the most underrated travel destinations in the world.
Why visit: The Paris of the Prairie offers outstanding culture and arts in the Midwest.
What to do: Highlights of the Windy City for families include the Art Institute, Navy Pier, and the Museum of Science and Industry (with a replica coal mine and real German U-boat from WWII), not to mention it’s the home of deep dish pizza. Take a river cruise for expansive views of the city’s architectural highlights; be sure to take in a Chicago Cubs game while you’re here to get the home team spirit.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Why visit: Experience the unique Cajun and Creole culture found only here.
What to do: Its nickname, The Big Easy, says it all when it comes to carefree days for families. Take in some Jazz at the Preservation Jazz Hall, look for alligators on a bayou tour, and indulge in hot, powdered sugar-covered beignets any hour of the day at Café du Monde. Visit during Jazz Fest in the spring, when the whole city grooves to big name performers such as Aaron Neville or for Mardi Gras (we recommend watching from the family-friendly Garden District).
Why visit: Big city culture combined with small town charm.
What to do: The City of Bridges is home to as many cultural highlights than there are days of the week, including The Andy Warhol Museum; three big Carnegie-sponsored centers for Science Center, Natural History, and Art a Children’s Museum; the Pittsburgh Zoo; and the Heinz History Center. Double up on swashbuckling fun with a Pirate Cruise on the famous 3 Rivers and a Pirates baseball game. Find out the common travel trips you can ignore.
Why visit: To rock and roll-ercoaster!
What to do: From Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Green Day, Madonna, if they rock, they roll here at Cleaveland’s super cool Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After you rock out, get ready to roll at Cedar Point, known as the Roller Coaster Capital of the World.
Charleston, South Carolina
Why visit: Southern charm, stately homes, and Colonial history.
What to do: Take a horse and buggy ride over the cobblestones of the impeccably preserved historic town, rent bikes to explore the riverfront and the green waterfront parks and refreshing fountains, then visit Charles Town Landing Historic Park, the first permanent home for settlers in the Carolinas, where a unique “natural forest” zoo houses animals from black bear to bison to bobcats that were indigenous to the area in the 17th century.
Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons, Wyoming
Why visit: Visit these two adjacent natural wonders together to see the best of what national parks can offer.
What to do: In Yellowstone, you have the flash of world-famous Old Faithful geyser and the colorful Mammoth Hot Springs, which draw massive amounts of visitors. The Grand Tetons, by contrast, offer massive acres of solitude, with quiet waterfalls, lakes, streams, and greenery. Stay in Jackson Hole, where you can also plan a winter “learn to ski” getaway. Here are 9 tricks to make traveling with kids easier.
San Francisco and Muir Woods National Monument
Why visit: To take a trolley car up the hilliest city in the country and visit a bridge so big it’s a national park.
What to do: Hope a trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf to watch the sea lions, then rent a bike to coast along the Pacific to Golden Gate Bridge National Park, or hop a ferry to the most famous prison in the country, Alcatraz, or to the “Ellis Island of the West” Angel Island. Then rent a car to cruise the scenic Pacific Coast Highway to forest bathe among the towering Redwoods of the neighboring Muir Woods forest. Or you can leave the driving to someone else and sign up for Adventures by Disney’s long weekend in San Fran.
Los Angeles, California
Why visit: Hollywood glamour and sunshine filled beaches.
What to do: Base yourself in Santa Monica and then rent a bike to explore, and people watch, along the golden coast, including funky Venice Beach. Head up into the Hollywood Hills to watch a live performance at the Hollywood Bowl, see the stars from the Griffith Observatory, or view art highlights at the Getty Center. Then take the kids to old-school Hollywood stars at the Walk of Fame and then cool new thrills at Universal Studios. Don’t miss these 21 secrets from pilots and flight attendants about flying with kids.
Joshua Tree National Park and Palm Springs, California
Gary C. Tognoni/Shutterstock
Why go: To walk through a Dr. Seuss book in real life.
What to do: At Joshua Tree, the desert cactus closely resembles the tufted “Trufula Trees” in The Lorax (needless to say, there are multiple lessons to be gleaned here about protecting the environment, too). The otherworldly desert landscape makes a trip to the park especially mesmerizing. Take a break from the heat with a trip up the Rotating Aerial Tramway, the longest in the world, to the top of San Jancinto Mountain, where you’ll often be able to have a snowball fight the same day you wore shorts in the desert heat.
San Diego, California
Why visit: Animals galore at one of the biggest zoos in the world.
What to do: Start a visit to this beautiful seaside city at Balboa Park, home to the San Diego Zoo, where lush habitats hold rare polar bears, pandas, koalas, jaguars, and leopards, just to name a few of the hundreds of species here. Balboa Park is also where families will find the Fleet Science Center and San Diego Natural Science Museum. Just north of San Diego, you’ll find building fun at Legoland. Base yourself on charming Coronado Island for access to the wide beaches, fun dining options, and the historic Hotel Del Coronado.
Yosemite National Park
Why go: To feel tiny next to towering Sequoias.
What to do: Famous for its plunging waterfalls and massive granite walls, this unparalleled park, which is almost the same size as Rhode Island, features recently reopened Mariposa Grove, where you can hike through sky-tickling Giant Sequoias. Bring the dog, too, this is a pet -friendly national park, especially the beautiful Wawona Meadow Loop trail. Find out the coolest kid-friendly hotels around the world.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Monuments
Why go: Marvel at larger-than-life faces from history.
What to do: Your kids might not be sure what to make of the 60-foot faces of four great American presidents etched into granite in the middle of the South Dakota wilderness, but we’re sure they won’t forget the images of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and South Dakota native Theodore Roosevelt rising out of a mountain in front of them. Nearby is a monument to Native American chief Crazy Horse, which comes alive with lasers and lights after the sun goes down. Both sites boast informative museums and exhibits that frame the attractions and should be part of your visit.
The Grand Circle: Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks
Why visit: An epic road-trip filled with stunning views.
What to do: These three Utah-based National Parks include some of the most impressive scenery in the country, and you can see it all on one (long) road trip. Arches, you’ll be greeted by more than 2,000 towering sandstone arches, all naturally created by the ancient earth’s freezing and heating cycles. Bryce Canyon be awed by the towering red pinnacles and unique geological formations and dazzling colors. At Zion, spot Peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and California condor in addition to a wide array of other wildlife as you explore the massive sandstone cliffs, spring-fed pools and waterfalls, and deep river canyon.
Why visit: Seeing the world from on high on a Space Needle in the sky.
What to do: Zip up to the spaceship like Space Needle for a rotating restaurant in the sky and views all the way to Mt Rainier (which you can visit if you’re up for a 2- to 3-hour car ride, and then a steep hike or drive). Then head down to sea level and the waterfront where you’ll find fish swimming in the Seattle Aquarium, flying through the air at Pike Place Market, the Great Wheel to fly you into the sky, and a ferry to float you to the San Juan Islands for whale watching tours (you may even spot an Orca!). Here are 9 travel mistakes to avoid to have the best vacation ever.
San Antonio, Texas
Why visit: Take a stand at the Alamo.
What to do: San Antonio is home to five world-heritage designated missions, including the Alamo, famed for a battle where a small group of volunteers held off a massive army. After you learn about the heroics, visit the other missions by boat or bike along the city’s second most famous site, the Riverwalk, 15-miles of garden-bordered waters that connect restaurants, hotels, and historic sites. Some of the country’s best road trips are in Texas.
Why visit: An island paradise is something your family will remember for decades to come.
What to do: Snorkel in the turquoise waters to witness a world of colorful fish and coral and play on the golden beaches, then dive in to some of the most interesting attractions in the U.S. On Maui, drive into one of the country’s most unique national parks, Haleakala, The House of the Sun, a dormant volcano with views on a clear day for nearly 100 miles. On the Big Island, you can actually see the fiery red glow active volcano if you’re timing is right at Volcanoes National Park. And on Oahu, pay your respects to the seamen who lost their lives at the watery Pearl Harbor Memorial.
The Inside Passage, Alaska
Why visit: Whales, and polar bears, and glaciers….oh my!
What to do: Take your family to our iciest state and witness the frozen wonders, such as the blue ice of the Mendenhall Glacier, and incredible wildlife such as schools of Beluga whales bubble feeding, not to mention authentic Native American culture in towns such as Sitka. The easiest way to see the rugged state is with a family-friendly cruise, such as Princess Cruise Lines. Next, here are 41 mini family vacations that won’t break the bank.